Level vs. growth rate targeting

Here’s Lars Christensen:

In fact I am pretty sure that if somebody had told Scott in July 2009 that from now on the Fed will follow a 4% NGDP target starting at the then level of NGDP then Scott would have applauded it. He might have said that he would have preferred a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend, but overall I think Scott would have been very happy to see a 4% NGDP target as official Fed policy.

Actually I would have been very upset, as indeed I was as soon as I saw what they were doing.  I favored a policy of level targeting, which meant returning to the previous trend line.

Now of course if they had adopted a permanent policy of 4% NGDP targeting, I would have had the satisfaction of knowing that while the policy was inappropriate at the moment, in the long run it would be optimal.  Alas, they did not do that.  The recent 4% growth in NGDP is not the result of a credible policy regime, and hence won’t be maintained when there is a shock to the economy.

However I do agree with Lars that the Fed has done much better than the ECB.

HT:  TravisV.

Further thoughts on “inflation”

Nick left the following comment on the previous post:

I really like this post … So I’m sorry to snark … But:

‘I concluded inflation is real.’
And
‘That’s why I keep claiming that inflation is a meaningless concept.’

Me think Econ no fit words good sometime.

What can I say?  I suppose I was thinking about this in two different ways:

1.  The BLS tries to do “hedonic” adjustments to the CPI, i.e. adjust for product quality change.  I showed that when we really did have high inflation you’d see the prices of ordinary items like cars rise very rapidly.  That’s clearly not true today.  I also showed that using what I thought was a plausible hedonic comparison (the 2014 Accord is just as good as the 1986 Legend) you could get zero inflation in new car prices, far less that the 35% assumed by the BLS.  So I’m dubious that the BLS is grossly understating inflation.  Of course I acknowledge that lots of service prices have risen faster than car prices, and thus there has been some inflation.  Even so, using the BLS hedonic approach, the actual BLS numbers seem plausible.

However . . .

2.  When I say inflation is a meaningless concept I’m suggesting that the concept is not well defined, despite the BLS’s attempts to do so.  Here’s commenter Vivian making a very good point:

Taking literally, “hedonic” means relating to pleasure. Did you get more or less pleasure from that 1964 Olds with all its trunk and leg space, steel and chrome and its muscular engine than you would from the Accord? What would it cost today, even with our advances in manufacturing technology, to reproduce that 1964 Olds with the same specs? Are hedonic adjustments confusing functionality with price (or even pleasure)?

These are all debatable questions, and for this reason I doubt the statement “there is no such thing as true inflation rate” is debatable.

In earlier posts I’ve made an argument (similar to Vivian’s and almost the opposite of my previous post)–that if you use a sort of “pleasure” criterion, then price inflation is roughly equal to wage inflation, and living standards haven’t risen at all. Thus people used to get great pleasure from crummy black and white TVs, but now someone with that TV set would be miserable, thinking about the great big flat panel HDTV his neighbor has.  He’d feel poor.  If economists really believe the CPI is supposed to measure a constant utility level, then for all we know there might have been no real wage gains in the past 100 years.  Who’s to say if people are happier than 100 years ago? All of these concepts are so slippery that I’m very skeptical of the notion that there is any “true” rate of inflation.

But my previous post was sort of saying; “if we are going to play the game of trying to seriously estimate inflation using BLS hedonic-type approaches, there is no reason to doubt their claim that inflation has slowed sharply from the Great Inflation period.”  Nice quality cars went from $3600 to $22,500 in 22 years, then to $22,105 in 28 more years.  You can quibble about the models I chose, but the overall pattern is clear.  Inflation has slowed sharply.  Or should I say “inflation” has slowed sharply?  I don’t seem to be able to make up my mind.

The Great Inflation

For God’s sake will people stop talking about inflation!  Especially you inflation “truthers” who insist the BLS is lying and the actual inflation rate is between 7% and 10%. Those are the sorts of rates we averaged during the Great Inflation of 1965-81. For those too young to remember, a little history lesson:

I was so excited when my dad came home with a red 1964 Oldsmobile 88.  That was a car for upper middle class Americans.  We were only middle class, but lived in an upper middle class house, because my dad was smart.  The car was actually used, but almost new.  He used to say a car lost 15% of it’s value the minute it was driven out the door of the dealer.  Now when I go look for late model used cars the dealers ask more money than for a new model. Here’s the car (which sold for $3600):

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 8.15.01 PM

Now let’s flash forward to 1986.  The Japanese cars are in style, and the first upper middle class Japanese car on the market is the Acura Legend, which sells for $22,500, more than a six-fold increase in 22 years. It was voted Car of the Year. That’s what high inflation feels like.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 8.18.52 PM

Now let’s go up to the present.  I’m not quite sure what model would be comparable to the Legend, but the Accord is made by the same company, and is slightly larger.  Here’s a picture of the Accord:

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 8.22.44 PMI’m pretty sure the Accord LX is better than the Legend LS in almost every way you could imagine.  It’s price?  Brace yourself, because 28 years is even more than 22 years. Surely the price of cars has risen more than 6-fold in the last 28 years. I’d say around $200,000.  Nope.

OK, $100,000.  No.

$50,000?

Actually it’s $22,105. (The link has all the specs.)

Cars have gotten cheaper over the past 28 years.

In nominal terms.

(The CPI says car prices have risen about 35% in the past 28 years–I don’t believe that.)

BTW, wages of factory workers rose from just over $2.50 an hour in 1964, to about $8.90 in 1986, to $20.68 today.  Put away the tissue paper, the middle class is doing fine.

My favorite car was a 1976 powder blue Olds Cutlass with a T-bar roof, whitewall tires and white bucket seats:

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 8.47.42 PM

It was a $6000 dollar car, but I bought it used for $3500 in 1981. That’s actually a 1977, I don’t have a picture of my car.

Hmmm, I thought they were a bit better looking than that.

And no, I did not have a “Landau roof.”  I do have standards.

PS.  OK, I cheated a bit by using a Wikipedia photo of the Legend, which isn’t too flattering, and a very pretty official Honda web site photo of the Accord.  But I’m not kidding, I’d rather have the Accord, even for the same price.

Millennials have no idea how lucky they are that they can just go out and buy a Honda Accord, brand new.  On a middle class income.

That BMW you always dreamed of?  Back in 1970 they looked like something made in a Soviet factory.

PPS.  Labor intensive service prices have risen much more than car prices, and high tech goods have fallen dramatically in price.  There is no such thing as a “true rate of inflation,” but there’s also no reason to assume that inflation has not averaged 2% in recent decades.  It’s just as reasonable as any other number the BLS might pull out of the air.

Don’t show this St. Louis Fed article to Nick Rowe

A commenter sent me a paper from the St. Louis Fed:

This view can also be represented by the so-called “quantity theory of money,” which relates the general price level, the total goods and services produced in a given period, the total money supply and the speed (velocity) at which money circulates in the economy in facilitating transactions in the following equation:

MV = PQ

In this equation:

  • M stands for money.

  • V stands for the velocity of money (or the rate at which people spend money).

  • P stands for the general price level.

  • Q stands for the quantity of goods and services produced.

Oh, so that’s the quantity theory of money.  In fairness, they do mention stable velocity later on. But stable velocity is the QTM, it’s where you start the explanation.  They continue:

And why then would people suddenly decide to hoard money instead of spend it? A possible answer lies in the combination of two issues:

  • A glooming economy after the financial crisis
  • The dramatic decrease in interest rates that has forced investors to readjust their portfolios toward liquid money and away from interest-bearing assets such as government bonds

In this regard, the unconventional monetary policy has reinforced the recession by stimulating the private sector’s money demand through pursuing an excessively low interest rate policy (i.e., the zero-interest rate policy).

If only the Fed had joined the ECB in raising interest rates back in 2011.  Then we would have had a much faster recovery.

Surprising?!?!?!?

Tyler Cowen linked to this (from the WaPo):

What’s really surprising, however, is that Democrats did not take this opportunity to up the ante on the Republicans by proposing to phase out corporate welfare in all of its forms, including Ex-Im. In the unlikely event that Republicans had accepted the challenge, it could have freed up tens of billions of dollars every year that could be used to reduce the deficit, cut taxes, invest in infrastructure or restore cuts to vital domestic programs. And if Republicans had declined the offer, that would have exposed their effort to kill the bank as the cynical and hypocritical ploy it appears to be.